The New Coming-of-Age Story

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For centuries, the bildungsroman, or novel of education, has offered a window into a formative period of life—and, by extension, into the historical moment in which it’s set. Vinson Cunningham sent the draft of “Great Expectations,” a book loosely based on his experience on Barack Obama’s first Presidential campaign, to publishers on January 6, 2021. Shortly after he hit Send, he watched rioters break into the Capitol building. “For me, it was, like, cycle complete,” he says. The age of optimism ushered in by Obama was over. “We are off to another thing.” Cunningham’s novel is part of a tradition that stretches back to the eighteen-hundreds: coming-of-age plots that chart their protagonists’ entry into adulthood. On this episode of Critics at Large, Cunningham and his fellow staff writers Naomi Fry and Alexandra Schwartz discuss how “Great Expectations” fits in the genre as a whole. They consider it alongside classic texts, like Gustave Flaubert’s 1869 novel “Sentimental Education,” and other, more recent entries, such as Carrie Sun’s 2024 memoir, “Private Equity,” and reflect on what such stories have to say about power, disillusionment, and our shifting relationships to institutions. “I think, if the bildungsroman has any new valence today, it is that the antagonist is not parents, it’s not religion, it’s not upbringing—these personal facets that you usually have to escape to come of age,” Cunningham says. “It’s the superstructure. It’s finance with a capital ‘F.’ It’s government with a capital ‘G.’ ”

Read, watch, and listen with the critics:
“Great Expectations,” by Vinson Cunningham
“Great Expectations,” by Charles Dickens
“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” by James Joyce
“Jane Eyre,” by Charlotte Brontë
“Invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison
“The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” by James Weldon Johnson
“Sentimental Education,” by Gustave Flaubert
“Private Equity,” by Carrie Sun

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